In the last few years, most of us have taken stock of our relationships and have either strengthened or mourned changing dynamics. Yet, we don’t necessarily understand what creates these changes – whether it’s ultra personal to us or simply the nature of our social fabric. 

Friends are good for us – they make us happier, give us an immunity boost and enable us to live longer. Yet, most of us are “lurching from one social minefield to another relationship catastrophe, while just about managing to keep ourselves afloat.” So says Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist who is responsible for research showing that the size of a social group is determined by the size of a species’ brain, resulting in the Dunbar number (150) – “the limit on the number of friends you can have.” In this book, Dunbar examines the layers or circles within those 150 people – close friends (5), best friends (15), sympathy friends and so on, to find that the numbers remain stable across cultures. 

There’s much to learn from this book as it spans all aspects of friendships, from what makes a friend, how they progress from an acquaintance to our innermost circles, what fractures a friendship and how our social networks undulate over a lifetime and yet remain the same size.

Family generally take precedence in this network of 150, with remaining slots being given to friends. The ‘kinship premium’ means that we’re more likely to show up for and be forgiving of family, perhaps because of the shared social ties, and we treat close friends at par with cousins.

Written in a conversational style, Dunbar offers liberal doses of data to back his theories, drawing on studies done on the social behaviour of monkeys, apes and humans. He sometimes uses an excess of descriptions of studies to belabour a point, and he really doubles down on gender stereotypes – women prefer intimate friendships, maintain closeness by talking and have higher expectations whereas men prefer community membership where shared activities are the norm. Men also remain closest to those who are geographically close to them – otherwise it’s basically out of sight, out of mind. Those with low attachment security report more loneliness. Those who score higher on the neuroticism scales tend to have greater difficult maintaining friendships because they may have higher standards or stricter rules.

He explores the extra tight circle of 1.5 friends in people’s lives. The half point is because of the average between men and women –  men identify only one person  – usually a romantic partner, or if they’re single then it’s their “drinking buddy,” whereas for women it’s their partner plus a best friend, usually of the same gender. 

Most of us will have noticed the trend that, as our friends reach the age of partnering up, romantic relationships often dethrone close friends. We attribute this to the fact that they have got lost in their relationships. Dunbar explains that this is essentially true. When a primary romantic relationship comes into play, it requires more time and commitment, thereby offsetting one to two close friends in the bargain. We feel great loss and sometimes a sense of failure when friendships disintegrate but the research shows that we will have about thirty unreconciled relationship breakdowns over a lifetime and Dunbar explores the key reasons for this. If you consider that to be a natural state of affairs in life, it does make accepting change much easier. 

Dunbar doesn’t put much faith in one’s digital presence – if online friendships are not supported by in-person meetings, they are unlikely to progress or last. Often, social media simply slows the natural decay and decline of these relationships.

One of my favourite takeaways is that a conversation can be held simultaneously between a maximum of four people. When it goes up to five or more, the conversation naturally splits in two groups. For screenwriters out there, here’s a useful tidbit – works from Shakespeare to modern films like Pride and Prejudice and Crash all embody this concept, with scenes that have a max of four characters having a simultaneous conversation is where the audience stays engaged.

Another favourite point is that apparently we express gratitude the least towards our nearest and dearest. We seem to assume that close friends and family are expected to show up when we need them and we are more likely to thank those in our outer circles because we sense that they have gone out of their way to support us. 

This work bequeaths a vast understanding of the very core of our social networks. It enabled a better grasp of my dynamics with various friends, putting into perspective my own history of the rises and lulls in relationships between close friends, old friends and my general social circle as I moved to different cities and countries. One can draw comfort from the idea that the positive and negative traits of one’s patterns (and those of friends) are not all that unique and are simply a part of human nature – nay, evolutionary nature, across species.

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